Once in the early ’90s, then-President Bill Clinton went golfing in a Durham Bulls hat. To this day, there isn’t a definitive explanation as to why, exactly. He just did.
The cultural phenomenon of Minor League hats kind of goes that way.
Minor League Baseball is rolling with that trend in its biggest way ever this year with the expansion of its Hometown Collection. A formerly sporadic component of MiLB’s merchandising efforts focused around the names, logos and identities of defunct teams, the eight-year-old Hometown Collection has been revamped and roaring this year.
Thursday marked the second in a series of five 2017 releases of throwback caps. In the latest rollout, MiLB unveiled the last look of the Pacific Coast League’s Portland Beavers, a stylized Memphis Chicks cap and a sky-blue version of the briefly named Swing of the Quad Cities. These caps join a group released in January that opened eyes at MiLB’s offices in St. Petersburg, Florida, to the collection’s potential.
Kurt Hunzeker, MiLB’s vice president of marketing strategy and research and a driving force behind its new “It’s Fun to be a Fan” marketing campaign, began pushing for the resurrection of the Hometown Collection shortly after he started on the job at the beginning of 2015.
“I promised the CFO, Sean Brown, we will sell every single hat we make within a calendar year,” Hunzeker said. “But we need the upfront investment to pay for the hats from New Era.”
With MiLB brass agreeable to a 15-cap series in 2017, Hunzeker went to work. He and his team asked a group of 12 cap enthusiasts for suggestions and narrowed them down from over 200.
“You have all of these caps and names and logos that we own the trademarks to and probably 35-40 percent of the time have vector art for, and we can use these and sell them under the Hometown Collection,” Hunzeker said. “We can relive the identity and the naming convention behind why [for example] the Capital City Bombers were called that and create fun content, and oh by the way, we can monetize this through sales.”
MiLB dipped its toe into the throwback waters last year with merchandise released for the Madison Hatters, Madison Muskies, Queens Kings and Wichita Wranglers. With good returns, Hunzeker started on a concerted push for an broader collection for 2017.
In January, MiLB began releasing teaser images across social media for the first group of the year: the 1980s Denver Bears, ’90s Capital City Bombers and near-legendary Casper Ghosts, the first team to incorporate a glow-in-the-dark feature to its logo. Why January?
“That is our worst time of year for engagement,” Hunzeker explained.
The first throwback hat release turned that notion on its head.
“The engagement we got on those [January] teasers was exponentially more than a video post about a play at the plate or a home run the night before,” he said.
All sizes of all three caps were sold out within six days.
“We reordered,” he said with a caveat. “We’re not going to do that again because I want to treat this like Disney does with their ‘vault.’ That’s how you guarantee sales. It’s a limited time only. We are making 72 total of each one across the different sizes. That’s it, so if you don’t get it on Day 1, you’re not allowed to complain on Day 5 when they don’t exist anymore.”
The only place to sell Hometown Collection caps will be the MiLB Store, and when they’re gone, that’s it.
“I can confirm multiple national retailers were like, ‘Hey, we want to sell these,'” Hunzeker said. “I said no because this is a content driver. This is an engagement driver for people to become opted into the MiLB digital network, so this is wholly owned by us.”
The Hometown Collection provides a window into the past for some of the Minors’ most passionate fans and a unique addition to the collection of hat enthusiasts everywhere, but it also provides another opportunity for Hunzeker to connect with Minor League Baseball’s newest core identity.
“Hometown Collection clearly ladders into ‘It’s Fun to be a Fan,'” he said. “Just having that entity now expands what we can do and what we can aggregate that the clubs can provide us. The clubs are stoked about it.”
With the torrid pace of sales for the first group’s rollout and similar sales expected for the new trio, Hunzeker already sees big things ahead for Hometown Collection in seasons to come.
“Now, we’re clearly on to something, so next year, we’ll order more because we’re now self-sustained,” he said. “We’ve paid back the investment the CFO gave us, and now we have investment money we can reallocate.”